12 Years a Slave is a sensational movie distinguished by its lack of sensationalism. The picture is based on an 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, a free black man in the North who was shanghaied into slavery in the South and, unusually, lived to tell the tale. Northup's story is horrific, and it requires no manipulation to guide our emotional response. So English director Steve McQueen and American screenwriter John Ridley – both of whom, also unusually, are black – allow this chronicle of foul injustice to play out without feeling any need to hammer home its message with thunderous music cues (Hans Zimmer has rarely been so restrained as he is here) or overwrought editing. The bare facts of Northup's story do all the hammering that most viewers could likely bear.
The elegant English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who featured memorably in such films as Dirty Pretty Things and Children of Men, was an ideal choice to play Northup. McQueen introduces the character in 1841 in Saratoga, New York, where Northup lives a comfortable life with his wife and children and plays the violin at social gatherings. He is approached by two men with an offer of musical employment in Washington, D.C.; and although Washington is a thriving center of the Southern slave trade, Northup, secure in his status as a free man, agrees to go with them. Soon thereafter, he wakes up in a dark basement, clapped in chains. And Chiwetel's performance—clawing frantically at the metal links locked around his arms and legs—powerfully conveys the panic of a man who has never known anything but freedom and suddenly finds himself bound like an animal.
One of Northup's captors (a grimly repellent Christopher Berry) explains to him what his life will henceforth be like. He is stripped of his name (he'll now be called Platt) and his identity (he's no longer a Northerner, but a captured runaway slave) and warned never to tell anyone he can read and write. To impress upon him the importance of these restrictions, he is then beaten bloody – first with a wooden paddle and then, after the paddle splinters apart, with a leather strap. McQueen illustrates the savagery of this assault, not in a standard midrange shot that would exploit its violence for our benefit, but in a closeup of Ejiofor's face, a battleground of terror and pain and incomprehension.
As Northup is carted off to New Orleans to be sold into bondage, the picture swells with memorable performances. Benedict Cumberbatch might not have been the perfect choice to play Ford, Northup's first master, but his dithery mannerisms do project the character's divided soul. Ford is a plantation owner torn between his religious beliefs (he's also a Baptist minister) and the Southern slave-owning tradition from which he hasn't the will to separate himself. (Northup understands Ford's inner conflict: "A decent man," he says, "under the circumstances.")
The movie surges dramatically after Ford is forced to sell Northup to another plantation owner, a drunken psychopath named Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps enjoys abusing his slaves, whom we see laboring in his cotton field with whips cracking overhead and kicks and curses raining down unprovoked. Epps' nightly visits to the cramped slave quarters, where he regularly rapes his favorite possession, a pretty girl named Patsey (the superb Lupita Nyong'o), are well known to his chillingly prim wife (Sarah Paulson), who does everything possible to make Patsey's life more hellacious than it already is. Mistress Epps is as nasty a piece of work as her husband: annoyed by the persistent weeping of a slave named Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who has been sold separately from her small son and daughter, she coldly tells the woman to get over it – "Your children will soon be forgotten."
Fassbender, who starred in McQueen's two previous features, Hunger and Shame, overbalances the picture a bit – he's sometimes the most compelling figure on the screen. As he demonstrated in Prometheus, he can rivet our attention with the slenderest of means; and when he casually props his arm atop one slave's head as if it were a fencepost, the gesture eloquently conveys a whole world of contemptuous inhumanity.
There are also fine performances in the movie's smaller roles. Paul Giamatti briefly appears as a slave trader whose calllousness leaks out around the edges of his professional joviality; Garret Dillahunt is well-cast as a spineless betrayer; and Paul Dano is vividly repellent as a whip-flashing yokel against whom Northup unwisely rebels. Some might quibble with the appearance of Brad Pitt (one of the film's producers) as a kindly itinerant carpenter; but Pitt underplays the part nicely, and it is, after all, key to the real story's resolution.
McQueen allows some of the movie's most atrocious action to unfold without emphasis: when Northup is passing through the woods at one point, we see behind him two slaves being lynched, their bodies spasming in the air as death claims them. Even the film's most shocking incident – an excruciatingly extended scene in which Northup is punished by being hung from a noose while balancing for his life on the tips of his toes – is contemplated in near silence, with birds singing in the trees and other slaves going about their business below, too afraid to offer help or comfort.
The positioning of Northup as our eyes and ears in this appalling environment is heartbreakingly effective. His cultivation and sensitivity throw the barbarism all around him into stark relief. Ejiofor gives a performance of imposing stature; and as an examination of the corrosive evil of slavery, this really is a movie unlike any other.
All Is Lost
In All Is Lost, Robert Redford, now 77 years old, gives a performance from which all vanity has been stripped away. He plays the movie's only character, a lone, craggy man whose name we never know, whose backstory we're never told. In growing peril hundreds of miles out in the Indian Ocean, Redford (let's call him that) is essentially a symbol of human endurance and quiet courage. But employing little more than facial expression, the actor connects us to this character, and our hearts slowly sink along with his hopes of rescue.
The movie is virtually wordless, apart from an opening voiceover in which we hear Redford obliquely addressing someone – his family, perhaps – as if he were writing a letter. "I tried to be true, to be kind, to be loved – to be right," he says. "But I wasn't." Now, he says, "All is lost here."
There's no telling what this might mean, and writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), doesn't linger over it. He backs up several days to show us Redford asleep in the bunk of his small yacht. It's not a luxurious boat, and we have no idea where Redford is headed – Sumatra, maybe? Madagascar? The question quickly fades away. Redford suddenly wakes up in his bunk to find water pouring through a hole in the side of his hull. Up on deck he sees that he's been rammed by a big metal cargo container, presumably fallen off a now-faraway freighter.
From this point, calamities begin to mount. The invading water wipes out his electrical power and navigational equipment and trashes his laptop. His supply of fresh water runs out. A mighty storm moves in and flips the boat and cracks its mast. Through all of this, Redford never pauses or panics. The actor makes us see this man's mind working, moving from one stopgap solution to another, determined to make it out the other side of his terrible situation. But when he's forced to abandon the boat and continue on in a covered life raft, his chances of doing so seem increasingly small.
Redford manages the considerable physical demands of his role with unflagging determination. That's him shimmying up to the top of a 65-foot mast, and him again flailing among a tangle of submerged sails outside the capsized boat. And in the movie's few quieter moments, he's sunburnt and salt-caked and a long way from the glamourous precincts of his earlier career. It's a very unusual star turn.
Director Chandor surrounds Redford with some marvelous shots – especially one positioned deep below the ocean surface, looking up at the bottom of the life raft, with flurries of increasingly larger fish flitting by just beneath it. And the scenes inside the small and often flooded cabin are little marvels of close-in camerawork. There's also a shot near the end, pushing down into the darkening depths of the ocean, that has a dreamily poetic power.
By the time the end arrives, we've pretty much given up hope, and we wonder when Redford will. How can this story possibly resolve in any other way but tragically? The answer is unexpectedly, but intentionally, abrupt. Getting to it, however, is a memorable adventure.